The Other Side of Life

The Other Side of Life: Understanding Mortality

by Dr. Stephen Larsen -Dedicated to Richard Barsky

We live in a culture that anesthetizes birth and cosmeticizes death! So there is a shrinking back from these “portal mysteries” that attend our coming into and going from, this life. Not only that, but our culture uses the images, the iconography, of death in trivial and foolish ways: Horror movies with hordes of the “living dead,” evil mummies and zombies, and routine depictions of killing, from the demure Murder She Wrote to the wholesale carnage of The Godfather, and The Terminator.

It seems we are titillated by death–as long as its happening to someone else–or an actor–and the comparison between violent TV and the Roman Circus, signs of a decadent culture, seems inescapable. Then there is one of the oldest couples in the world: Eros-Thanatos, love and death. With these two archetypes we may explore most of mythology: High drama from Sophocles to Shakespeare–right down to TV shows with guns and “babes”.

Love and death. Fail to honor them with ceremony and they creep into our mindless entertainment–portal mysteries. Do we lose something of ourselves in sex? Genetic material? Descendants? Well, sooner or later we die and they survive. And the French call sexual orgasm le petit mort, “the little death”.

Medieval paintings show a beautiful woman with a corpse–desire and death, as if the one leads to the other. Fighters lose their macho, it is said, flirting with “the little death” before their battles; and women have even more to lose in love–not only their virginity, but their “sole occupant” status in their own bodies. Women often dream of both marriage and pregnancy in the language of death imagery, because they know that something of themselves will be lost irretrievably during these conditions. (Women thus seem to approach sex with more seriousness than men. They are more likely to be concerned about the loyalty and emotional warmth of the partner than simple titillation.) Further, childrearing promises endless self-sacrifice, as if the parents’ life were eclipsed by that of the child.

As a psychotherapist in rural Ulster County, I have found my major work in helping people deal with love and death. Relationship crises, in case you haven’t noticed, occasion some of the most poignant and bewildering experiences of our lives. Men are often reluctant to acknowledge that there’s “anything wrong” in their psyches or relationships. But they will come readily enough to see a therapist when their hearts are breaking–or already broken– another kind of petit mort. Then begins the soul-searching, and some of the most important discoveries of their adult lives. Women, often sensing their own emotional danger-signals, go to therapy earlier, realizing that confiding emotions leads to healing and emotional growth. Love and death; the death of expectations, the death of relationships. Wounds to the soul.

Six years ago, one of my earliest psychology students–who had become a psychologist himself–was diagnosed with a malignant cancer. In his forties, he was happily married, a wonderful singer who starred in musicals as a second career, and sang in churches with his magnificent tenor voice. He was working on two screenplays full of promise. In the end he seemed only a walking skeleton–with an overflowing heart. Incredible synchronicities unfolded in his last months and weeks. I held his hand as he died. The hardest thing for this vital young man was to not take his next breath. There was no trouble delivering his eulogy: he was a beautiful man who lived among warmth and beauty on every side. The only mystery was why death came so early to one with such inner abundance and love.

Worse than death is bereavement–the separation from those we love–here is death’s cruelest bite, for it seems the numbing, aching loss is in precise proportion to the love that once flowered. Some become sure they could never love again–because they know the pain of loss will be proportionate to the love assayed. (My friend’s widow can’t bear to erase his voice from the answering machine.) In bereavement the ache, and the sense of meaninglessness, go on and on–Love’s labors lost.

About ten years ago, a flow of bereaved people began to come to my office. Terrible cases of loss: parents, partners, and, the worst–because we are so emotionally unprepared for it–children. I thought I had met the worst when I worked with a family who had lost two children. What can you say to haunted eyes and empty–so very empty–parental hearts? Can love which has lost that which it most greatly loved ever recover? I felt so ineffectual, I was surprised when I got more and more referrals. From two of my own near-death experiences I felt vulnerable to the intolerable pain they brought–It came so that I could feel the ache in my waiting room before meeting the actual wounded people. But sometimes an unaccountable grace and peace would touch these sessions…

Then I met the worst indeed: A young man had lost not only two small children, but his wife in the same horrible accident. He had already come for counseling for a few weeks, when the autopsy he had fought against for so long, revealed that his wife had also been pregnant–he hadn’t even known himself. Surely one cannot sustain such catastrophic loss without hovering close by the never-never land of madness. When I would let my gaze blur, and try to sense his energy body, it was shattered beyond belief. Where can so much love go, when its dear objects pass away? He was actively suicidal for six months–he dreamt of his family calling him and pulling him down into the water with them…

A wonderful support-network of friends and family communed with me daily as they followed his movements, or sat in wordless numbness with him. PTSD (Post-traumatic-stress-disorder) took on a new scale of meaning. It was beyond anything I had encountered, beyond even the Vietnam vets with whom I had worked. I felt so overwhelmed that I made the mistake of sending him to the most renowned specialist in extreme loss in the country, whose office was in Boston. My patient was back to me almost overnight, angrier than I had ever seen him. The man had told him, “six months is enough to grieve, now you should put it behind you and get on with life!” I knew this man needed more like six years.

I became aware just how respectfully and gently we professionals must approach work with the traumatically-shattered soul. It needs to find the depths–confirming its own reality through the encounter with pain–finally to learn about love in a new way: through its loss. But love began to flow all around this man, as an extended family and a community sorrowed with him. We were not meant to endure this ordeal alone, and thus it bonds us. Death: Wise instructor in how to love. And how do we plumb the depths of soul?… Love someone mortal.

Five years ago in 1993, while I was still actively teaching at Ulster Community College, I ran an evening lecture series called “The Other Side of Life,” on Death and Dying. The goal was to realize the college’s community mission by helping nurses, therapists, and Hospice workers, deepen their perspectives; not to mention taking the mission of education to homes and hearts of those suffering with terminal illness or bereavement. Featured were writer and thanatologist Ken Ring, and my friend and Kyudo (“Zen Archery”) instructor, Richard Barsky, a long term meditator, teacher of mindfulness techniques, and volunteer who worked in prisons and with the dying.

Ken Ring, a psychologist and lifetime researcher of the near-death experience, summoned an enormous wealth of accounts from those who had passed into the vestibule and back. Most of us have heard of some of this by now–an encounter with a being of light, a kaleidoscopic life-review–and a chance to go back to the body–even if you don’t want to. The most impressive evidence Ring presented was not just the luminous experiences that come to so many at death’s door–but their life-transformative effect. People “embraced by the light” or touched by the portal-mystery in its actual (not cinematic or dramatic) manifestation, seem to be permanently changed.

Barsky took us deeper, less into theory, and more into the experience that attends deep states of meditation, and the Bardo states that are described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There, in the space between two thoughts, the trough of the brainwave, the pause between exhalation and inhalation, is the Buddha: the presence of the peace-bestowing, ever tranquil, ever fertile void. When our thoughts are stilled, we approach the profundity of the deep-sleep state described in the Upanishads, we approach the stillness of Death.

How strange to find it so filled with peace. “Go there often in meditation, so that when you inevitably encounter it in death, it will seem as familar and comfortable as your living room.” It was a profound sequel to the earlier lecture–and many participants, hospice workers, and helpers for Aids victims spoke movingly of how enriched they felt by Richard’s presentation, and the experiential workshop offered the Center for Symbolic Studies, for those who wished to delve deeper into what Richard was teaching.

As I write this piece, my friend himself is very sick; hovering in the stillness. He is near the vestibule, not so very far from death’s door. I dreamt before I knew just how sick he was, that he had been building a basement on a new house–on North Front Street in Kingston. The basement was extraordinary–strong groined arches like the catacombs of 10th Century Mt. St. Michel, Saint Michael’s cathedral-crowned mountain off the Brittany coast. The dream made me shiver because of the symbolism. North in the Native American (as well as other mythologies) is the Wisdom place–the place of the ancestors, of hard lessons. But Richard’s foundation was good. On that foundation you could build a cathedral–or weather a great storm.

What lasts when the body dies? That seems to be the great question–the one that all of mortal humanity would love to have answered. The vestibule experiences described by Ring and Raymond Moody are intriguing–but they too, by definition, are portal mysteries. I once asked a friend of mine, an Oxford educated minister, if he believed in reincarnation. “Not this time round,” he said.

I do not know what I myself believe of the after-death state, but I have always been fascinated by the various mythological accounts of the other side of life–from the twittering shades of Greek Mythology to the symbolically-rich Egyptian underworld, or the mirage-filled Tibetan Bardo realms that lead down again into incarnation–to the Baroque splendor of the European Christian Heavens.

I like to think that the “immortal longings” in the human soul point to its survival of bodily death: Butterfly breaks free of confining chrysalis of matter, and flies into fruitful darkness–the space between the stars. But of one thing only am I really certain. There is something that penetrates, permeates, and even transfigures Death itself: Love!

by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D.